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South China Sea tensions - What's the US strategy?

The US defied Beijing by sending a warship close to one of China's man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea, and announcing future patrols. DW examines Washington's position in the dispute and the risks involved.

"There have been naval operations in that region in recent days and there will be more in the weeks and months to come…We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits."

These are the words of US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, speaking during a congressional hearing in Washington on October 27 after a US ship sailed inside the 12-nautical-mile limit of an artificial island built by China in the disputed South China Sea (SCS).

Although the move had long been awaited, Washington's direct challenge to Beijing's territorial claims in the area angered the Chinese who condemned the move as "illegal" and a threat to their country's sovereignty.

China's foreign ministry summoned the US ambassador to protest, and said the nation would do "whatever is necessary to oppose deliberate provocation from any country."

'Not frightened to fight a war'

State-run media went even further. An editorial published this Wednesday by the Global Times said: "In [the] face of the US harassment, Beijing should deal with Washington tactfully and prepare for the worst ... This can convince the White House that China, despite its unwillingness, is not frightened to fight a war with the US in the region, and is determined to safeguard its national interests and dignity."

Watch video 01:50

Beijing angered by US warship patrol

Tensions between Washington and Beijing have been rising for years over China's territorial claims in the area. Beijing claims most of the potentially energy-rich SCS through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, arguing that it is asserting its so-called "historic rights" to maritime resources in the area.

The US, in turn, accuses China of creating artificial islands in the disputed waters that could be used as airstrips or military installations, and has vowed to continue sending military aircraft and ships to protect navigation rights.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to the SCS, which have led to territorial disputes in the area. This explains why Manila and also Tokyo - which is engaged in a dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea - welcomed the recent US move.

What's the strategy?

But given the dangerous escalation of tensions, many ask themselves what message the US is trying to send China by conducting such naval patrols.

Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told DW that this so-called Freedom-of-Navigation (FON) operation was not about military deterrence or sending a diplomatic message. "It is a legal tool to assert that the United States does not recognize excessive maritime claims no matter who makes them."

The expert explains that while growing fear of regional states in the face of China's island-building campaign helped get the operation green-lighted by the White House, such a move is not as unique as most would believe, "and it is not singling out China."

Poling pointed out that the US conducts dozens of FON operations all around the world every year, and has done so since 1979. "Those operations target everyone from bitter geopolitical rivals to some of the United States' closest allies."

The long-term benefit in this case, the expert added, is that it forces China to try and rationalize its objections to the operation.

In fact, China's failure to clarify the legal status of the waters around these artificial islands has increased the pressure on Washington to convey its view on the issue.

"Underwater features cannot generate territorial seas, and Subi Reef was indisputably underwater before China built an artificial island on it. Artificial islands are only entitled to a 500-meter safety zone. In the face of those facts, China's official responses were heavy on indignation but lacking on justification," said Poling.

"Regularly contesting Chinese claims like this makes it more and more difficult for Beijing to avoid telling the world exactly what it is claiming in the SCS and why," he added.

Interpreting UNCLOS

At the heart of the problem lie differing legal interpretations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Maritime lawyers note the Chinese routinely outline the scope of their claims with reference to the so-called nine-dashed line which takes in about 90 percent of the 3.5 million-square-kilometers SCS on Chinese maps.

And according to Chinese scholars, their country enjoys sovereignty over all the features within this line, and enjoys both a sovereign right and jurisdiction as defined by the UNCLOS, including an Excusive Economic Zone.

However, many international scholars such as Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia security expert and professor at the Washington-based National War College, disagree.

"The Chinese are making sweeping claims that have no basis in international law. UNCLOS clearly says that artificial islands are not entitled to territorial seas or EEZs. Likewise, China's undefined 9-dashed line has no basis in international law. Beijing is making a vast unilateral claim to territory and in the process, trying to reinterpret international law."

Karte Südchinesisches Meer Besitzanspruch China Englisch

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, triggering territorial disputes with some neighboring nations

Analysts say part of the US strategy is thus to prevent China from being able to claim, as a result of US inaction, that the waters of the SCS within the so-called nine-dashed line - and outside of legally-based territorial waters near land features - are Chinese territorial waters.

The Philippines filed a lawsuit at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to declare China's claims to virtually all the SCS invalid, arguing that Beijing's actions have trampled on other nations' rights and have caused considerable damage to the environment.

The hearings started early July examining China's contention that the tribunal doesn't have the authority to assume jurisdiction over the Philippine case.

Beijing, which for this reason has refused to take part in the case, has called on Manila to withdraw the case and engage instead in bilateral negotiations. No ruling has yet been announced.

Possible scenarios

China has always maintained that it would never restrict the flow of trade and commerce through the SCS.

But, as Michael Swaine, an expert on China and East Asia security at the think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explains, Washington fears that if Beijing declares large portions of these waters as part of China's territory, it will then create the ability to control those waters, and could in the future obstruct transit, especially by the US Navy.

And Washington's more serious concern is that this may happen in what it regards as illegal ways, the analyst noted.

"Beijing could attempt to physically block US ships from entering the area, by placing ships in front of them. It could also closely shadow the ships in dangerous ways, although that would be in violation of agreements between the two countries not to conduct such dangerous maneuvers. They could also mine the areas, but that would be illegal and might be viewed as an act of war. I very much doubt they would do this," Swaine told DW.

Armed conflict?

Analyst Abuza fears China may be taking the necessary steps to put in place an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the area. "They tried this over the East China Sea, but did not have the capabilities to enforce it. So they seem to be building up the military capabilities - including four airfields in the Spratly and Paracel Islands to enforce an ADIZ should they declare it."

Given the high stakes and heightened rhetoric, many fear Beijing may take more provocative action. But Abuza doubts the Chinese will try to further escalate the tensions. "Beijing is trying to do enough - protest, dispatch ships, summon the US ambassador and call the move 'irresponsible' - to show the public that it's doing something."

"The government has no communist ideology to peddle, so it has flamed the fans of nationalism. Now it has to manage expectations, which will be quite hard. The leadership is very fearful that the public will punish it for not standing up to the US, but it can't afford an armed conflict," said the analyst.

Nevertheless, if the two governments are unwilling or unable to reach some type of agreement on this issue, tensions could increase as a result of more frequent naval and air encounters, thus increasing the chance of an incident that could escalate into a serious political-military crisis, China expert Swaine underlined.

'The Asia Pacific is big enough'

Watch video 05:01

Philippines: China's brazen land grab

But ultimately, experts say the US and Chinese governments need to sit down and discuss in detail their interests, policies, and stances in the area in order to hopefully reach some level of understanding, or at least acceptable rules of the road. "It is not in the interest of either country to have this issue escalate into an armed confrontation," said Swaine.

Dr. Nong Hong, Director of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the China-based National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), has a similar view.

"In order to resolve the issue, China and the United States have no choice but to engage each other and maintain regular consultations on how they can coexist with their respective core interests. After all, the Asia Pacific is big enough for both countries to share and exert their respective influence without constantly being at each other's throats," she said.

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